Uncorked: Say 'petite sirah' and you've said a mouthful
Nothing small about the powerful grape
Petite sirah (March 2, 2011)
There's very little "petite" about the red wine made with petite sirah grapes. Words such as "blackstrap" or "opaque" aren't too off the mark. The wine is not about finesse; it's about power.
As such, petite sirah long has been used in California to shore up other wines when harvest conditions make for weaker-than-normal versions (cabernet soaked by rain, for instance). Paul Draper, the well-respected winemaker at Ridge Vineyards, swears by petite sirah and uses it frequently in many of his zinfandel blends.
It is often made as a straight petite sirah and has been a mainstay at some of California's older wineries (Foppiano, Parducci and Concannon, to name but three).
It isn't to be confused with the French grape known as syrah and planted there most successfully in the Rhone Valley. (Or to the same grape grown in Australia and called shiraz by the Aussies.)
For years, the origin of the petite sirah found in California wasn't clear. Many old-timers felt that it was the obscure French variety called durif, but ampelographic (studying the vine's leaves to obtain its DNA) evidence in the late 1970s showed that petite sirah is a name given to no fewer than four grape varieties: durif; peloursin, an obscure French vine of which durif is an offspring; a cross of peloursin and durif; and the true syrah itself.
As petite sirah, it also grows on more than 3,500 acres in Argentina, and in Mexico, the L.A. Cetto winery turns out respectable petite sirah.
If winemakers can tame petite sirah's formidable tannins, the wine can be a mouthful but in a blowsy way, "chewable," in a manner of thinking. But it's more like liquid meat than any red wine I've ever come across, with a savory aroma of blackberries and spice. As such, it serves well at a table topped with red meat — beef or lamb especially — or heartier vegetarian dishes such as grilled mushrooms, cheesy eggplant lasagna or stout bean ragouts.
And it is one of California's more age-able reds, going the distance in the cellar for 25 years or more.
Bill St. John has been teaching and writing about wine for more than 30 years.
Here are tasting notes and recommendations on a number of petite sirahs from California.
2008 Concannon Petite Sirah Conservancy Livermore Valley: From one of the best producers of the variety: inky dark and concentrated; surprisingly moderate in tannin, but with what the English call "good attack": The flavor smacks you upside the cheek. $15
2008 McMannis Family Vineyards California Petite Sirah: Big, brassy fruit, so thick it actually coats the inside of the glass on swirling it, like cassis liqueur; overlaid with moderately gripping, cleanup tannins and a healthy dose of acidity. $10-$11
2008 Huntington California Petite Sirah: Chunky-fruity, with a grapey nose accented by black pepper and some delicious wood flavors; happily, only moderately tannic. $14
2007 Parducci Signature True Grit Mendocino Petite Sirah: Packed as tight as a soldier's footlocker with black fruit flavors and tastes; hints of dark chocolate and white pepper, too; lush and softly turned out, though, for all that weight. $30
2007 J. Lohr Paso Robles Petite Sirah: What a nose of spices and berries, tannic and concentrated, rich and ripe, a big wine with a come-taste-me-now character. $20
2007 Vina Robles Paso Robles Jardine Petite Sirah: The vines for this wine are old, stingy with their fruit and difficult to farm. But the wine they produce is so concentrated yet so elegant and refined, the tannins held in check and the nose popping with scents of dark fruit compote, black pepper and baking spices. $20-$25
2007 August Briggs Napa Valley Petite Sirah: Like Lennie in "Of Mice and Men": big but gentle, with opaque concentration, moderately gripping tannins and a grapey-winey, richly peppered taste; fantastic, pretty power. Try with cassoulet. $38
2007 Clayhouse Show Pony Paso Robles Petite Sirah: Rich and "sweet," in a portlike manner, but without the sugar, merely the thick concentration; enormous color and fruit, but softly turned out for a delicate grip on the palate; agreeably low in tannin. $40
If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.
The tale of the grape
Petite sirah is one of the oldest wine grape varieties planted in California, going back to the 1880s.
It may be distantly related to the red wine grape called syrah, but it isn't a "small" or lesser version of it.
About equal amounts of petite sirah grow in Argentina as in California.